Roundup: Incoming procedural shenanigans

Hang onto your hats, dear readers, because it looks like we’re up for another week of procedural gamesmanship as the Conservatives continue to try to make the Atwal Affair happen. Our hint is that the Conservative whip, Mark Strahl, has taken the unusual action of cancelling all MP travel, and wants to ensure that it’s all hands on deck for this short week (but one wonders if that includes Andrew Scheer, who has been barely in Ottawa lately, including on sitting weeks, as he continues his various tours across the country). That, and the fact that it seems that this is the time of year that there is some kind of procedural showdown, judging from the past couple of years. (Recall that around this time last year, the Commons ground to a halt over Bardish Chagger’s proposals for reforming the Standing Orders).

So what can we expect? No idea yet, but one imagines that the stops will be pulled out, whether it’s interminable points of privilege, filibusters at committees, or attempts to force concurrence motions on committee reports. Whatever it is, we’ll see how long they either have the stamina for it (unlike last week’s vote-a-thon tantrum), given the upcoming long weekend/two-week constituency break, or whether the government will back down (as they have tended to in the face of such obstruction techniques). Maybe the government will be able to issues manage/communicate their way out of a wet paper bag this time and effectively say that the opposition is wasting time that could be better spent debating gun control/the budget implementation bill/etc, etc. Or maybe the Conservatives will have better traction with their disingenuous narratives about the Atwal Affair and the absurd notion that the government is “muzzling” the National Security Advisor from appearing at committee (never mind that he shouldn’t appear based on Westminster norms, and that the government has pointed to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to investigate the issue if the Conservatives are so motivated, if they actually cared about accountability and were not simply looking to public humiliate a senior public servant and the government). Suffice to say, nobody is going to cover themselves in glory over this, everyone’s patience will be tested, and nothing will be accomplished in the long run. But what else is new?

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Roundup: 20 years of Vriend

There was a particular milestone that has personal significance to me yesterday, which was the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Vriend v Alberta, where sexual orientation was official “read into” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it comes to protection from discrimination. Why it has particular significance for me was because this happened shortly after I came out, and in many ways, it opened my eyes to the cynicism of politics.

This was shortly after I completed my time as a page in the Alberta legislature, and I had become familiar with the MLAs who worked there. As a page, you have so many friendly interactions with them, as they ask about how you’re doing in school, and they sneak candy to you from the stash at their desks, and generally made you feel like a welcome part of the functioning of the chamber. But as the decision was rendered, the newspapers were full of statements from these very same MLAs whom I had come to like and respect that were full of vitriolic homophobia that it was very much like a betrayal of everything I had come to experience about them during my time as a page. Ralph Klein, who was the premier at the time, was also publicly mulling the use of the Notwithstanding Clause to opt out of the Court’s decision, but in the end, opted to respect it, and thus proving that so much of the trials and the foot-dragging by the provincial government was merely about the performance of having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present, and being “forced” to accept that gays and lesbians had rights. In other words, nobody – especially Klein, who was described by many as a liberal who adopted the Progressive Conservative mantle – had the political courage to stand up for what was right because they were afraid of the province’s Bible belt (which continues to be a thorn in the side of many to this day, with the battles of Gay-Straight Alliances in the province, and the “acceptability” in the former Wildrose party of the “Lake of Fire” comments by one of their MLAs, which eventually forced then-leader Danielle Smith to walk out, sinking the party’s fortunes).

So yes, this had a very formative impact on my political sensibilities, before I even considered journalism to be my career path. It forged much of my cynicism about electoral politics, and about the kinds of performative jackassery that is considered normal in the execution of political duties, and it especially gave me a real sense of the profiles in political courage that we see time and again, every time there’s a tough decision that MPs will defer to the Supreme Court, every single time, most recently with the decision to return the tougher decisions around medical assistance in dying back to the courts after the government refused to accept expert recommendations in their legislation. The pattern remains the same, even if the moral goalposts have shifted ever so slightly. So here’s to twenty years of Vriend, and to my human rights as a Canadian.

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Roundup: Caucus leaks from sore Liberals

There was a very curious piece in yesterday’s Hill Times that offered leaks from the Liberal caucus room – leaks which have been rare over the past couple of years, but then again, Jane Taber has retired from journalism, so perhaps not everyone has gotten around to finding someone to call when they want to gripe. In this particular instance, the chair of the Liberals’ rural caucus allegedly raised the notion that he didn’t feel his constituents were properly consulted on upcoming gun control legislation, and Trudeau allegedly chastised him in return, given that this was a campaign commitment and they have consulted for two years and there’s not much more consultation that they can do. (And really, the notion that this government has been paralyzed by consultation is not too far from the truth).

Now, I get that rural Liberals are nervous – the institution of the long-gun registry in the 1990s did serious damage to their electoral chances that they only just recovered from in this last election cycle, and these MPs would like to keep their seats in the next election, thank you very much. But at the same token, I’m not going to be too sympathetic to this notion that Trudeau’s response to them is going to create some kind of chill in the caucus room. You’re grown-ups, and sometimes things get a bit heated, particularly when it looks like there’s some pretty serious foot-dragging going on that could affect promises being kept, while the party is already on the defensive for other promises not kept (however justified it may have been not to keep them – looking at you in particular, electoral reform).

I was also curious by the tangent that this piece took regarding the fact that Gerald Butts and Katie Telford also routinely attend caucus meetings, which tend to be reserved only for MPs (and once upon a time, senators) to hash things out behind closed doors and to have full and frank discussions with one another. And there was talk about how under Chrétien or Martin, senior staff were not there, but under the Harper era, they often were, if only to take notes and ensure that there was follow-up on items that were brought forward. And if that’s all that Butts and Telford are doing, then great – that may be a good way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. But it does feed into the notion that Butts is the real brains of the operation and that he’s the one running the show. Take that for what you will.

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Roundup: The perverse state of party leaders

Amid a bunch of bad puns by headline writers yesterday, seven out of ten Bloc MPs quit caucus because they can’t work with their leader, Martine Ouellet. Her demands that they push sovereignty above all else rankled too many, who felt their jobs as MPs were to represent Quebec’s interests in Ottawa boiled over, and they left to sit as a quasi-independent caucus (insisting that they still, deep down, belong to the Bloc) for the time being. It’s a move that some recall as being similar to when a number of Alliance MPs walked out of their caucus over dissatisfaction with Stockwell Day’s leadership, and they never really came back until the whole Conservative Party unification happened and Stephen Harper became leader.

This point that Coyne makes is exactly right. If things were running the way they should, someone from caucus would be the leader, and it would be the caucus selecting him or her, not the membership, and it would be the caucus who removes him or her. If Ouellet had an ounce of shame, she’d resign in the face of this revolt (as bad leaders like Alison Redford did once a mere two MLAs went public). But things are not running well. Rheal Fortin, the party’s former interim leader, went on Power Play and yet didn’t say that she should step down which is insane (though Gilles Duceppe did). Parties don’t serve leaders – leaders should serve the party. MPs shouldn’t be drones to serve a popularly elected leader, with all of the initiative of a battle droid. This perverse state of affairs is poisoning our parliamentary democracy, and it should stop. Ouellet should resign and mind her own affairs in the legislature that she already has a seat in, rather than trying to straddle both, and the Bloc should just choose a leader from their own ranks – Fortin was already doing the job, no reason he can’t go back to doing it.

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Roundup: Conference call confidential

Over the weekend, Jen Gerson got a big scoop for Maclean’s, which was the first of the two Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus conference calls that eventually led to Patrick Brown’s resignation. (If you haven’t read the piece, do so now because I’m going to spoil it a bit). When it turned out that Brown himself was listening in, along with some of his remaining staff, it turned into a bunch of pleading (and whinging) while those caucus members who were on the call (about 20 of the 28 in total) were united in the fact that Brown had to step down right away, or they were going to publicly call for it, and Brown kept insisting that for the sake of his dignity, he wanted to meet them all the following morning and resign afterward. None of the caucus were having this because they were already being blasted over social media, and by the time everyone from caucus could get to Toronto and meet the following day, it was going to be too late for the sake of the party’s image in the run up to an election.

This is an interesting point, but I think this is an instance where the credibility of allegations comes into play. While CTV did have to walk back on a couple of the details, the core allegations remain intact and as soon as they were published, reporters from various outlets began remarking that this was an open secret, and that they had all been working on their own stories about Brown but that CTV had beaten them to the punch. That most of Brown’s campaign staff immediately jumped ship also indicated that there was a certain credibility to the allegations – this had to be more than just “fake news” and baseless allegations designed to get him out of the way. That context matters in the wake of the social media discussion.

This tension, which I talked about not only in my Maclean’s piece but also in my book, is part of the problem with the way parties are run these days, where the elected members of caucus are treated as afterthoughts to the leader, even though they have very real concerns of their own. While none of the discussions recorded on this call seemed to have ventured into the territory of “we can’t do this because the members elected him,” that became the narrative once it happened by those who resented caucus making the push. Granted, several of Brown’s MPPs started tweeting that they were calling for his resignation before he pulled the plug, and usually it only takes one or two caucus members to go public before a leader with any modicum of shame does the right thing, though I’m not sure that Brown had quite enough shame to want to go out with enough dignity, and his pleading to be given until the next day was likely an attempt to forestall the inevitable. It’s all fascinating how it played out, but remains part of the object lesson in why our leadership selection needs to change.

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Roundup: A return to “bold” policy

The federal NDP had their biannual policy convention over the weekend, and Jagmeet Singh’s leadership was “reaffirmed” when some 90 percent of delegates voted not to have a leadership review. So they’ll keep giving him a chance despite his intransigence in not running for a seat, apparently. And while they got a new party executive, and talked about how they need to do better when it comes to dealing with the harassment allegations in their own ranks that went ignored (particularly around Peter Stoffer), they also decided it was time to return to “bold” policy ideas after a fairly timid electoral platform the last time around. Not so bold, mind you, as to embrace the Leap Manifesto, which went unspoken during the convention despite rumours that it would rear its head once again, but rather, they went for things like universal pharmacare, dental care, and free tuition – you know, things that are the ambit of the provinces. Oh, and re-opening the constitution, as though that’s not going to be any small hurdle. (The free tuition debate, meanwhile, took over Economist Twitter over the weekend because the NDP’s adherents have a hard time understanding how a universal programme actually disproportionately benefits the wealthy rather than applying targeted benefits that would benefit those who are less well-off).

Chantal Hébert, meanwhile, finds the same core message of the NDP unchanged despite the changing slogans. There is some disagreement about that.

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Roundup: Procedural shenanigans beget the new anthem

There has been some drama in the Senate over the past couple of days as the procedural shenanigans to bring the national anthem bill to a final vote culminated in a motion to call the vote, and eventually that happened. The bill has passed, and the new national anthem will be law once the Governor General gives it royal assent. But the procedural moves have the Conservatives in a high dudgeon, somewhat legitimately.

My understanding of events was that the main motion to call the vote has been on the Order Paper for months, and was finally called Tuesday night. This was a debatable motion, and likely would have sparked a few weeks of adjournments and debate, but ultimately would have delayed the vote for only that long. But a second, also legitimate procedural move was used by another Independent senator immediately following, and Speaker apparently didn’t hear Senator Don Plett’s desire to debate it. What I’ve been able to gather is that this was likely a mistake given lines of sight, but were compounded by tactical errors on the Conservatives’ part in demanding to debate the first motion and not the second (or something to that effect). Points order were debated last night, but they had agreed to end the sitting at 4 PM in order to have the votes at 5:30, and when they didn’t get unanimous consent to extend the sitting, debate collapsed and when 5:30 rolled around, the Conservatives boycotted the vote in protest. According to those I’ve consulted, the moves were all legitimate but messy, and have the danger of setting up bad precedent for not allowing debate on this kind of motion.

The Conservatives in the Senate, meanwhile, are caterwauling that their democratic rights have been taken away, and there is talk about conspiracy between Mélanie Joly’s staff, and other threads that are hard to track when they’re throwing them against the wall like spaghetti. And while I share the concerns about bad precedent, I can’t say that I have too much sympathy because they’ve used (and one could argue abused) procedure for over a year to keep the bill at Third Reading, with the intent to ultimately delay it until it died on the Order Paper. They insist that they offered the chance to amend it to the more grammatically correct “thou dost in us command” rather than the clunky “in all of us command,” but I find it a bit disingenuous, because it was simply another delay tactic. And I’ve argued before that this continued tendency to use procedural tactics to delay bills is going to end up biting them in the ass, especially because it plays into Senator Peter Harder’s hands in his quest to overhaul the chamber in order to strip it of its Westminster character. The Conservatives are overplaying their hand, and it’s going to make it very difficult to drum up enough legitimate concern to stop Harder when crunch time comes, and they should be very aware of that fact.

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Roundup: The Hehr question

For the past few days, one of the same questions keeps being raised in light of everything that has gone on – with all of the resignations in light of sexual misconduct allegations, why is Kent Hehr still in caucus? I have to say that the policing of who is and is not in caucus by the pundit class is getting a bit crass, to say the least, the concern trolling over a lack of consistent practice is something that the commentariat should be trying to come to grips with, rather than exacerbating the situation with some blatant concern trolling.

Prior to this parliament, there was no process when it came to sexual harassment allegations against MPs. The process was explicitly that there was no process – MPs don’t fit under a workplace framework when dealing with one another, so the lack of process was to ensure that there was room for mediation between the parties involved, and things were dealt with quietly behind the scenes, so that there wouldn’t be partisan advantage taken of it. I can’t say how well it did or did not work, but things changed in 2014 with the Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti allegations. What changed was that Thomas Mulcair fully intended to make a partisan issue out of the allegation and had booked a press conference to denounce the MPs and Trudeau for not doing anything about the allegations that had been made directly to him. When Trudeau beat Mulcair to the punch and suspended the two MPs (who were later formally expelled), Mulcair had to instead shift tactics and accuse Trudeau of re-victimising the complainants, but those involved knew that Mulcair has readying his salvo and swift action needed to be taken. When the allegations about Darshan Kang surfaced (plus the allegation he offered to pay the complainant to keep it quiet), and were corroborated by those who had worked for him in provincial politics, Kang removed himself from caucus (and went on medical leave), but there’s been no indication that he was expelled by Trudeau.

When pressed about Hehr’s status, Trudeau noted yesterday that the party is trying to deal with things on a case-by-case basis, and there is a process in place now that didn’t exist before, and an investigation has been launched into Hehr’s activities. That Trudeau would try to respect the process put into place since the Andrews/Pacetti incident is likely a good thing, but this being politics, there is already partisan hay being made of this, with Erin O’Toole trying to paint this as Trudeau having changed his own rules. Because you know, why resist the urge to take partisan shots? And if Trudeau went around the process, you know that the question would be why he didn’t wait for the investigation – because damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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Roundup: Duffy’s privilege problems

At long last, the Senate has responded to Senator Mike Duffy’s lawsuit against it, and is asking the Ontario courts to remove it from the suit because of parliamentary privilege. This was to be expected, and I’m surprised it took this long, but here we are. Duffy’s lawyer says that he’ll fight it, of course, but he’s going to have an uphill battle because this is very much a live issue.

For a refresher as to why this matters as an issue of privilege is because it’s about the ability of the Senate to discipline one of its own members. This is especially important because the Senate is a self-governing body of Parliament, and because it’s appointed with institutional independence and security of tenure in order to ensure that there is that independence. In other words, the Senate has to be able to police its own because there’s no one else who can while still giving it the ability to be self-governing (as we explored in great detail over the Auditor General’s desire to have an external audit body oversee the chamber’s activities). And indeed, UOttawa law professor Carissima Mathen agrees that it would be odd for the Senate not to have the power to suspend its own members, and raises questions about whether it’s appropriate for the judiciary to interfere in this kind of parliamentary activity. (It’s really not).

The even bigger complicating factor in this, of course, is that NDP court case trying to fight the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy decision around their satellite offices. The Federal Court ruled there that it’s not a case of privilege (which is being appealed), and Duffy’s former lawyer, Donald Bayne, said that this is a precedent in their favour while on Power & Politics yesterday. And he might have a point, except that the Commons’ internal economy board is a separate legislative creature, whereas the Senate’s internal economy committee is a committee of parliament and not a legislative creation. This is a Very Big Difference (and one which does complicate the NDP case, to the point that MPs may have actually waived their own ability to claim privilege when they structured their Board in such a fashion – something that we should probably retroactively smack a few MPs upside the head for). I don’t expect that Duffy will win this particular round, meaning that his lawsuit will be restricted to the RCMP for negligent investigation, but even that’s a tough hill to climb in and of itself. He may not have much luck with this lawsuit in the long run.

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Roundup: Cyberwarfare oversight concerns

The University of Toronto’s CitizenLab issued a report on Bill C-59, and the powers that it gives the Communications Security Establishment to engage in offensive cyberwarfare operations, rather than just sticking to being on the defensive. According to their report, these kinds of activities wouldn’t require any kind of judicial oversight – just the sign-off from the ministers of foreign affairs and national defence – and will have little other oversight other than the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. And as Stephanie Carvin explains below, that’s actually not a bad thing, because offensive capabilities are not the same as intelligence gathering – one of CSE’s other activities.

And this is pretty much the point – a Crown prerogative doesn’t require the same kinds of oversight, and does not necessarily bind the activities to being Charter compliant because it’s not directed at Canadians, thus is not concerned with their particular rights and freedoms. And as Carvin points out, these kinds of operations have their own particular oversight mechanisms, which are simply different than the once that CitizenLab identifies. It’s perfectly fine to wonder if CSE is really the agency to be doing this kind of work, but that also means asking who else would be doing it, and if the answer is to build new capabilities within the Canadian Forces, is that the best use of scarce resources? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s certainly a topic worthy of debate, but “no judicial oversight” is not right argument to be making in this case.

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